I have a very hard time not ordering duck breast when it’s offered on any restaurant menu.
The server can rattle off a hundred specials and describe everything else on the menu in excruciatingly delicious detail, but my focus never leaves the duck breast.
Unlike chicken and turkey, duck does not carry the same bacteria as those two and the breast can (and should) be cooked to medium rare – about 135 degrees plus carryover. Your county health department may advise the restaurant kitchen otherwise, telling them to cook it to 170, but then it will be overcooked and dried out.
There’s something else about duck breast, too. There is a lot of fat under the skin and that in itself is something that gourmands and omnivores like me also treasure. Because if you haven’t had potatoes fried in rendered duck fat, then you haven’t lived a complete life. Trust me on that one.
The technique for cooking duck breast is rather straightforward, but in order to render the fat properly and ensure a juicy, rather than greasy, entrée, there are a few simple steps to take.
Score the duck skin in a crosshatch pattern with a very sharp knife and season the duck all over with coarse salt and pepper.
Heat two tablespoons of water in a heavy ovenproof skillet over low heat until hot, and then add the duck, skin side down. Cook the duck, uncovered, over low heat, without turning, until most of the fat is rendered and the skin is golden brown. This could take up to 25 minutes. And it could be a little smoky, too, but the water should help keep the smoke to a minimum.
Fruit glazes and sauces suit duck breast perfectly, and the two most popular fruits to be used are oranges (you’ve no doubt heard of the classic duck a la orange) and cherries.
Transfer the duck to a plate and reserve all but a tablespoon of fat from the pan. Brush the skin side of the duck with your fruit glaze or sauce (more on this a little later) and roast the duck breast in the oven, skin side up, until your meat thermometer registers 135 degrees, about 8 minutes for medium-rare.
Transfer the duck to a cutting board and set the pan aside. Let the duck stand, loosely covered with foil, 10 minutes.
Duck breast is just about always served sliced on the diagonal. This presentation allows the diner to see the beautifully crisped skin and the pink meat, sitting in a pool of one of the aforementioned fruit sauces.
Here’s a version of a cherry sauce that goes perfectly with duck:
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then cook 1/2 cup diced onion, 3 smashed garlic cloves, and a small diced shallot, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 7 minutes.
Add teaspoon of tomato paste, black pepper, a 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, a pinch of hot pepper flakes, and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup of diced red bell pepper and a diced Roma tomato and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.
Stir in 1/4 cup red wine, a tablespoon of cider vinegar, and 2 tablespoons of sugar and simmer for a minute. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, 1 1/2 cups cherries, and another 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer.
Purée the mixture in a blender until very smooth, about a minute, using caution, because hot liquids splatter while the blender is doing its work. Strain the cherry sauce into a bowl and set aside a quarter cup of sauce for glazing the duck.
Then shallow fry diced potatoes in the duck fat. I’ll say no more.
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